When I was growing up in Great Neck, a Long Island suburb of New York long known
for its disproportionately large and wealthy Jewish community, Lubavitch was no
more than a curiosity, satisfied by a Hebrew school outing to a matza-baking
factory in Brooklyn on the eve of Passover.
Today, diagonally across from the
Reform temple in which I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah, an imposing Chabad center is
being constructed on a prime piece of real estate overlooking the water.
Situated on a hill, it will likely soon be overshadowing the congregation of my
formative years as well.
Cut to the 2012 Israel Day Parade along New
York’s Fifth Avenue. An Israeli colleague who marched in it for the first time
shared with me his surprise and dismay that the large majority of participants
appeared to represent Orthodox institutions and organizations.
me wrong. He wasn’t exactly complaining. He himself is Orthodox and actively
engaged in promoting Torah Judaism worldwide, but as a Zionist he was bemoaning
the low turnout of non-Orthodox supporters of the Jewish state. I told him that
when I was there nearly 50 years ago, so were they. “Where have they disappeared
to?” he wanted to know.
A few days later we got the answer. Hard data
corroborating the anecdotal evidence.
A survey commissioned by the
UJA-Federation of New York concerning the 1.5 million Jews living in the eight
counties of New York City, Long Island and Westchester, revealed that 64 percent
of the Jewish children in the region, and 32 percent of its entire Jewish population,
run the gamut from modern Orthodox (10 percent) to haredi (22 percent). This represents an
increase of some 50 percent over a period of 20 years. During the same two decades the
number of nondenominational Jewish households more than doubled, rising from 15 percent
to 37 percent of those surveyed.
The survey further revealed that Jewish
education has intensified among those who identify with one denomination or
another, but has declined among those who do not; that the overall intermarriage
rate stands at 22 percent, while among the non- Orthodox it has climbed to a new high
of 50 percent; and that those who do not label themselves as Orthodox are less involved
in things Jewish than they were a decade ago, and that the ways in which they do
continue to express their Jewishness tend to be increasingly through association
with family or friends rather than with an institution, thereby threatening the
infrastructure of the organized Jewish community.
In other words, even if
inclined to march in support of Israel, they wouldn’t have had a framework
within which to do so.
The bottom line: the more Orthodox and insular the
Jewish community, the greater its retention rate. Surprise, surprise.
reminded of the introduction to sociology course I took as a college
All these years later I still remember the field being dubbed
as “the painful elaboration of the obvious.” Less obvious are the conclusions we
are to draw from all this.
BUT BEFORE tackling that, let’s shift to
Israel. I have no doubt that were a similar study undertaken here, we would also
find that the intensity of Jewish education, birth rates, concern with the
Jewish future and identification with the Jewish collective all rise in keeping
with levels of ritual observance.
While digesting these phenomena
together with a Shabbat meal shared with friends, one of them quickly jumped to
conclusions. “If we’re genuinely concerned with Jewish continuity, then,” he
offered, “we’ve really got no choice but to be investing in Orthodox
institutions.” I almost sent him home without dessert.
The real challenge
facing those of us who are concerned with Jewish continuity is creating a
Judaism that is compelling for those for whom Orthodoxy will never be the
answer. On both sides of the ocean.
The growth in the numbers of those
alienated from Jewish life altogether is not going to be checked by augmenting
support for those who portray authentic Judaism as unchanging and increasingly
restrictive, inflexible and exclusive.
Doing so will only add to the
sense of disenfranchisement felt by that segment of our population that occupies
a shrinking middle ground between an expanding core and a growing periphery. It
is they who need concern us. What that calls for in greater New York I will
leave to somebody else to suggest. I will only propose what it calls for here in
Israel: empowering those who offer authentic alternatives to a calcified Judaism
while restraining those who would impose their fossilized rendering of tradition
on the rest of us.
We can do both at once if we are but prepared to seize the
moment. The time is now, for four reasons: Firstly, there is the Supreme Court
ruling that the “Tal Law,” granting yeshiva students exemption from military
service, is illegal and must be rescinded. This provides us with the opportunity
to declare to the haredi population once and for all that they must shoulder
their fair share of the national burden in defending the state or forgo the
rewards of living in it – first and foremost the financial benefits that they
have heretofore been successful in extorting from Israel’s coffers. (There are
currently upwards of 60,000 young men who have not only been excused from
serving in the army, but are being paid by the state to study instead!)
Secondly, there is the attorney-general’s determination, based on a High Court
opinion, that the state must recognize and fund non-Orthodox rabbis, albeit in
severely limited circumstances. This ruling establishes a precedent that must be
grasped and utilized in myriad ways to embed the values of pluralism and
religious freedom in the public consciousness and the country’s basic
Until that happens, this latest development – as welcome as it is –
amounts to little more than a tiny drop in a vast bucket.
At most, it is
likely to lead to less than a dozen Reform and Conservative (Masorti) rabbis
being employed by the state, compared to the more than 4,000 Orthodox rabbis
currently on the public payroll. Still, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has vowed to
work to reverse “this shameful phenomenon” of recognizing as rabbis those who
labor “to uproot the foundations of Judaism.”
Thirdly, there is the
public’s expression of outrage during the past few months in regard to the
exclusion of women from the public domain and other manifestations of religious
extremism, coercion and questionable use of public funds. Thousands of ritual
baths, paid for out of the taxpayer’s pocket, are off-limits to any bride-to-be
who has not been referred by a state-sanctioned rabbi.
The more than
300,000 émigrés from the FSU who are not halachically Jewish are being denied
the possibility of conversion, and the situation is only getting worse. In 2011,
only 4,293 recognized conversions were performed in the country, compared to
8,008 four years prior. Furthermore, potential immigrants who converted abroad
are being denied recognition as Jews here, despite a Supreme Court ruling
requiring the Interior Ministry to accept them as such. The result: the people
of Israel are ready to draw the line on this side of sanity as never been
before, finally saying no to the creeping encroachment on personal liberties
that has been tolerated since the establishment of the state.
finally, that the government now enjoys the support of 94 of the Knesset’s 120
parliamentarians means that the power of any one of its component parties is
diminished while threats to leave the coalition over one piece of legislation or
another may be taken less seriously. This is the moment to enshrine in
legislation the promises of the Declaration of Independence in regard to
Due to the confluence of these four developments, we
are at the cusp of an historical opportunity. We must not squander it. Orthodox
hegemony, far from guaranteeing the future of the Jewish people will ultimately
lead to its attenuation, hastening as it will the flight of the majority from
tradition, and deepening the sense of alienation from the so-called Jewish state
on the part of Jews around the world who are increasingly asking themselves if
it really belongs to them as well. This is something we can ill-afford – not in
Great Neck, not along Fifth Avenue, and not in Jerusalem.
The writer is
vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish
Agency executive. The opinions expressed herein are his own.